Are you in your 40s or 50s and feeling empty and low for no apparent reason? If so, you may be in the throes of a midlife crisis. At times you may question whether this could be depression, however, what you are feeling is a normal shift in the aging process.
Research tells us that midlife is the time when we are most likely to feel down. The Happiness U-Curve, taken from a collection of research that studies happiness across the lifespan, shows that on average, life satisfaction drops to it’s lowest in our 40s and begins to rise again around the age of 50, reaching a peak at the end of life.
The Paradox of the Midlife Crisis
A ’crisis’ can occur, of course, at any time in our lives. However, given that the Happiness U-Curve shows a significant dip in midlife, it seems that on average, people experience more strain and less life satisfaction in their 40’s and 50’s. But why?
Midlife is a time when many of the goals society expects of us are either complete or not achieved. Such goals include getting an education, finding a life partner, buying a house, having a family, and excelling in a meaningful career. We spend years working towards these goals, and then find ourselves in a place where we either feel lost now that we have achieved societal expectations, or frustrated and sad because we haven’t achieved them at all. We find ourselves at the top of the mountain and realize the view isn’t what we always thought it would be.
In the midst of this, life can begin to look very different. Children leave home to pursue their own dreams and no longer need us in the same way, while our careers often reach a peak. The incidence of divorce increases as couples find themselves alone and no longer connected in a meaningful way. And for women, physical and emotional changes also occur due to menopause.
For some this period of midlife is a welcome opportunity for self-reflection and slowing down, while others may find themselves feeling lost, fearing the aging process and wondering where they go from here. In this place that seems unfamiliar and unwelcome, it is common to experience a decrease in mood.
Crisis or Depression?
So, we know what happens in midlife and we know why. But the question of whether you are experiencing a midlife crisis or depression may be a little bit of a moot point. Circumstances aside (divorce, empty nesting etc), depression is sometimes just a part of that shift that occurs in our 40s and 50s. Whether we feel it depends on whether we feel satisfied or dissatisfied with our life progress to date, and whether we feel content with where we think life is heading. It also depends on whether we believe the next life stage holds purpose and we are contributing to society in a way that feels meaningful.
Depression often stems from having a lack of meaning in life and feeling disconnected and lost. Realizing that it is normal to experience this in midlife can help shift our perspective from a state of hopelessness to contemplation. As we move into the next season of life we have an opportunity to let go of what society expects of us and to consider what will truly brings fulfillment and meaning to our lives. We look inward for our happiness rather than to the outside. It is a period of growth and reinvention. As we let go of external pressures we slowly emerge from the fog and find ourselves on the upcurve of life.
A New Journey
The important thing to know is that this challenging stage of life can morph into something rich and productive in a new way, where we are no longer striving to achieve what everyone else expects of us but instead can begin to relax and take care of our inner and outer world. But to get there requires a willingness to go on an inner journey. You may want to consider counselling at this time and engaging in self-explorative practices such as journaling and meditation. The important thing is to do something different and to really lean in to what brings you joy.
Reading about this stage can help you to know you aren’t alone and what you are experiencing is normal. It can also help you to get to the other side. Here are some great books to assist you in that process:
The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife, James Hollis.
In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age, Patricia Cohen, 2012
The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and calling, James Hillman
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
Waking Up in Winter: In Search of What Really Matters at Midlife, Cheryl Richardson
Lost Connections, Johann Hari